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How Trump Can (and Probably Will) Botch the Iran Situation

The president has been more vocal in support of the latest round of protests than Obama was. But his travel ban and threat of sanctions mean trouble for activists.

Mark Hay

Mark Hay

Left photo by Mike Theiler/Pool via Bloomberg. Right photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Last Thursday, a wave of protests broke out across Iran, with tens of thousands taking to the streets for the largest and most sustained wave of political activism in the country in years. By most accounts, what began as unrest over pocketbook issues like high food prices and unemployment soon metastasized into a broader frenzy of agitation against the Islamic regime and its focus on religious issues over economic ones.

It took about a day for Donald Trump to insert himself into the situation.



On Friday, the president took to Twitter to laud the protests as a sign Iranians were fed up with their government for its “squandering of the national wealth to fund terrorism abroad.” And he’s continued sounding off about the protests since, in part by bashing his predecessor’s Iran policies—the Obama administration was famously rather hands-off during the 2009 “Green Movement,“ the last major outbreak of protests in the country, a strategic decision then secretary of state Hillary Clinton came to regret. On Wednesday, Trump went so far as to suggest his administration may take some sort of action in support of the protesters “at the appropriate time,” though as usual with him, it’s awfully difficult to know what this actually means.

Trump’s fixation on the protests isn’t surprising. As always, he seems determined to use the issue to show he’s bigger and better than Obama. Practically speaking, he could conceivably take this opportunity to re-impose sanctions the last administration lifted in 2015 in exchange for a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program. (The waiver on those sanctions needs to be renewed every few months, and the next deadline is coming up in just over a week.) Key Trump allies have also been talking openly about adopting an explicit policy of undermining the Iranian government and pushing for regime change.

But there are signs the protests may already be flagging. At least 21 Iranians have been reported killed and hundreds arrested in recent days, and while anti-government activism continued Wednesday, it may have been overshadowed by curated pro-regime counter-protests. Still, whatever happens to quiet or bolster this show of dissent, Trump’s response has already diverged from that of his predecessors. To understand the full implications of what this administration's approach means for Iran and its political dissidents, we reached out to Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian American Council, a group promoting greater understanding between the two countries. Here’s what he told us.

VICE: When these protests broke out, given everything we know about him, how did you expect Trump to react?
Jamal Abdi: My fear was that Trump would exploit [this] for his policy agenda that his administration was hoping to push forward for a long time... that Trump [might] use this to kill the nuclear deal and change US policy firmly towards regime change in Iran. Which I don’t think will lead to regime change. It could lead to war. But more likely, it will lead to a situation in Iran where there’s a more severe clampdown… and the prospect of moving towards more open governance and greater human rights becomes even more reduced because of tensions with the United States.

How has the regime responded to Trump’s rhetoric on the protests and threats of action?
I don’t think the rhetoric has factored into the Iranian response yet. Probably that will change if Trump decides to not [continue to] waive sanctions. I see that as an opportunity for Iran’s leaders to say, Look, the United States is behind the economic grievances that sparked these protests.

With Obama, as much as there was criticism of how fast his reaction to the Green Movement or how strong his criticism was, that was the Iranian regime’s worst nightmare. You had a president who wasn’t willing to fall into these traps suggesting the US was behind the opposition and who was talking about reintegrating Iran into the global economic system.

Trump has said nice things about the Iranian people, that they’ve been held back by their current system of government. But that’s rhetorical. You couple that with new policies like piling on sanctions that actually will hurt Iranians and the fact that Trump is banning all Iranians from coming to the United States and it rings hallow in Iran. I don’t think many Iranians are looking at Trump as someone they want as the leading voice of whatever this movement ends up being.

What do you make of the idea that Trump’s comments might deter protesters?
I can’t speak for all Iranians, but I think there is a fear of destabilization. When Syria began to collapse, even during the Arab Spring, there was a sense in Iran of, Wow, the rest of the region is falling apart and things are really stable here. Many people feel disenfranchised. But there’s also this feeling of, If we push too hard, we could end up in a really bad situation.

Trump has exacerbated that, because now people [think] the US could really try to get involved. Then other players may want to get involved. I’ve heard people talk about this fear of, What if the Saudis try to get involved and send weapons into Iran? That has made a lot of people who were maybe involved in the 2009 protests or who want changes to say, I don’t want to get involved because I’m afraid what could happen with Trump and other outside actors if this goes too far.

What will happen in Iran if Trump pulls out of the nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions?
The nuclear deal is one of Hassan Rouhani’s [the moderate who won Iran’s presidency in 2013] only major achievements. It was supposed to bring economic prosperity. It hasn’t, and the majority of Iranians view it as a failure because they don’t see their lives getting better. If Trump does this, it will pull the rug out from under the Rouhani government and any hope diplomacy and moderation can make things better and will give the hardliners cover to take over.

In the short-term, if Trump reacts with sanctions that go against the economic concerns of the protestors, will that make it hard for the regime to argue, as it often does when unrest breaks out, that the people on the street are being funded or stoked by America?
Ripping up the nuclear deal will likely give ammunition to those in Iran who say outside forces are at least trying to exploit this. It will also give ammunition to those in Iran who are saying outside forces [rather than domestic policies] are responsible for Iran’s economic plight.

It’s going to come across as hypocritical if the US says, We support the demonstrators who are calling for an improved economy, so we’re going to hurt the economy. These sanctions hurt the ordinary people. They actually enable the most radical elements of Iran to enjoy a greater share of the economy. They drown private business and kill jobs for factory workers.

I also want to say that protests started as an economic but developed into a broader critique of the regime. The sanctions would actually undercut that critique. You’re sending a signal to the rest of the country that, if you pursue critiques of the regime and call for political freedoms and human rights, you’re actually doing damage to the country and undermining your own interests.

So I think it’s going to have a chilling effect on this movement.

If the protests end soon, do you think Trump’s focus will lapse before he makes any significant decision on this front?
This is probably an opportunity for what Trump wants to do that his administration is not going to let go of, even if the protests fizzle out. They are going to use this to try to push the US into a full regime-change policy. That’s where I expect things to lead, unfortunately.

Magic wand question: If you could somehow shift Trump’s reactions to these protests right now, but couldn’t erase his rhetoric to date, what would you want to see him do?
The first thing I would do is lift the Muslim ban, which prevents most Iranians from coming here. That is one of the ways the US has demonstrated a lack of solidarity with the Iranian people. Lifting that would show solidarity and give the US more credibility to comment on human rights.

From there, the best thing any administration could do is to talk about this in terms of the Iranian government’s human rights obligations. Not getting into political squabbles, but talking about the fact that Iran is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You could unite the international community to make sure that protesters’ rights are protected.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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